Attitudes and Attitude Change

25 Understanding Attitudes

Although we might use the term in a different way in our everyday life (e.g., “Hey, he’s really got an attitude!”), social psychologists reserve the term attitude to refer to our relatively enduring evaluation of something, where the something is called the attitude object. The attitude object might be a person, a product, or a social group (Albarracín, Johnson, & Zanna, 2005; Wood, 2000).

When we say that attitudes are evaluations, we mean that they involve a preference for or against the attitude object, as commonly expressed in terms such as prefer, like, dislike, hate, and love. When we express our attitudes—for instance, when we say, “I like swimming,” “I hate snakes,” or “I love my parents” —we are expressing the relationship (either positive or negative) between the self and an attitude object. Statements such as these make it clear that attitudes are an important part of the self-concept.

Every human being holds thousands of attitudes, including those about family and friends, political figures, abortion rights, terrorism, preferences for music, and much more. Each of our attitudes has its own unique characteristics, and no two attitudes come to us or influence us in quite the same way. Research has found that some of our attitudes are inherited, at least in part, via genetic transmission from our parents (Olson, Vernon, Harris, & Jang, 2001). Other attitudes are learned mostly through direct and indirect experiences with the attitude objects (De Houwer, Thomas, & Baeyens, 2001). We may like to ride roller coasters in part because our genetic code has given us a thrill-loving personality and in part because we’ve had some really great times on roller coasters in the past. Still other attitudes are learned via the media (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003; Levina, Waldo, & Fitzgerald, 2000) or through our interactions with friends (Poteat, 2007). Some of our attitudes are shared by others (most of us like sugar, fear snakes, and are disgusted by cockroaches), whereas other attitudes—such as our preferences for different styles of music or art—are more individualized.

The Purpose of Attitudes

Human beings hold attitudes because they are useful. Particularly, our attitudes enable us to determine, often very quickly and effortlessly, which behaviours to engage in, which people to approach or avoid, and even which products to buy (Duckworth, Bargh, Garcia, & Chaiken, 2002; Maio & Olson, 2000). You can imagine that making quick decisions about what to avoid or approach has had substantial value in our evolutionary experience.

For example:

  • Snake = bad → run away
  • Blueberries = good → eat

Attitudes are important because they frequently (but not always) predict behaviour. If we know that a person has a more positive attitude toward Frosted Flakes than toward Cheerios, then we will naturally predict that they will buy more of the former when they get to the market. If we know that Amara is madly in love with Leila, then we will not be surprised when she proposes marriage. Because attitudes often predict behaviour, people who wish to change behaviour frequently try to change attitudes through the use of persuasive communications.

Shifting Consumers’ Attitudes

A few years ago, KFC began running ads to the effect that fried chicken was healthy — until the U.S. Federal Trade Commission told the company to stop. Wendy’s slogan that its products are “way better than fast food” is another example. Fast food has a negative connotation, so Wendy’s is trying to get consumers to think about its offerings as being better.

An example of a shift in consumers’ attitudes occurred when the taxpayer-paid government bailouts of big banks that began in 2008 provoked the wrath of Americans, creating an opportunity for small banks not involved in the credit bailout and subprime mortgage mess. The Worthington National Bank, a small bank in Fort Worth, Texas, ran billboards reading: “Did Your Bank Take a Bailout? We didn’t.” Another read: “Just Say NO to Bailout Banks. Bank Responsibly!” The Worthington Bank received tens of millions in new deposits soon after running these campaigns (Mantone, 2009).

The ABC’s of Attitudes

Our attitudes are made up of cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Consider an environmentalist’s attitude toward recycling, which is probably very positive:

  • In terms of affect: They feel happy when they recycle.
  • In terms of behavior: They regularly recycle their bottles and cans.
  • In terms of cognition: They believe recycling is the responsible thing to do.

The image below shows how a person’s positive attitude towards composting would be comprised of a strong alignment among their feelings towards composting (“affect”), their actions when it comes to composting (“behaviour”), and their thoughts about composting (“knowledge”).

Visual depiction of the ABC Model of Attitudes: the example represents how a person might hold a positive attitude towards "composting" and that their "affective, behaviour, and cognition" would align with their overall attitude.
An overall positive attitude towards composting is supported by the alignment of our feelings, our behaviours, and our thoughts about composting. The ABC’s together form the “DNA” of an attitude.

Affect, behaviour, and cognition can be defined as follows:

The ABC’s of Attitudes

  • Affect: Our feelings and emotions that help us express how we feel about a person/event/object
  • Behaviour: What we intend to do or how we intent to act regarding the person/event/object
  • Cognition: Our thoughts are beliefs about a person/event/object

Response Hierarchies: Which Comes First?

Although most attitudes are determined by affect, behavior, and cognition, there is nevertheless variability in this regard across people and across attitudes. Some attitudes are more likely to be based on feelings, some are more likely to be based on behaviors, and some are more likely to be based on beliefs. For example, your attitude toward chocolate ice cream is probably determined in large part by affect—although you can describe its taste, mostly you may just like it. Your attitude toward your toothbrush, on the other hand, is probably more cognitive (you understand the importance of its function). Still other of your attitudes may be based more on behavior. For example, your attitude toward note-taking during lectures probably depends, at least in part, on whether or not you regularly take notes.

Thinking, feeling, and doing can happen in any order. Psychologists originally assumed that we form attitudes through a fixed sequence of these three components: We first think about the object, then evaluate our feelings about it, and finally take action:

Cognition → Affect → Behaviour [C-A-B].

Research, however, shows that we form attitudes in different sequences based on different circumstances. If we’re not very involved in or don’t care much about a purchase, we may just buy a product on impulse or because we remember a catchphrase about it instead of carefully evaluating it in relation to other products. In that case, action precedes feeling and thought:

Behaviour → Affect → Cognition [B-A-C].

Conversely, feelings — rather than thoughts — may drive the entire decision process; our emotional reactions may drive us to buy a product simply because we like its name, its packaging design, or the brand image that ads create. In this case, we see the product, have a feeling about it, and buy it:

Affect → Behaviour → Cognition [A-B-C].

Involvement Levels and their Response Hierarchies

Table that lists involvement levels and respective examples
Involvement Level Example Response Hierarchy
High Vacation, wedding dress, new car C—A—B
Low Car wash, tin foil, toilet cleaner B—A—C
(Impulse) Face mask, candles, computer games A—B—C

Although most attitudes are determined by affect, behaviour, and cognition, there is nevertheless variability in this regard across people and across attitudes. Some attitudes are more likely to be based on feelings, some are more likely to be based on behaviours, and some are more likely to be based on beliefs. For example, your attitude toward chocolate ice cream is probably determined in large part by affect—although you can describe its taste, mostly you may just like it. Your attitude toward your toothbrush, on the other hand, is probably more cognitive (you understand the importance of its function). Still other of your attitudes may be based more on behaviour. For example, your attitude toward note-taking during lectures probably depends, at least in part, on whether or not you regularly take notes.

Different people may hold attitudes toward the same attitude object for different reasons. For example, some people vote for politicians because they like their policies, whereas others vote for (or against) politicians because they just like (or dislike) their public persona. Although you might think that cognition would be more important in this regard, political scientists have shown that many voting decisions are made primarily on the basis of affect. Indeed, it is fair to say that the affective component of attitudes is generally the strongest and most important (Abelson, Kinder, Peters, & Fiske, 1981; Stangor, Sullivan, & Ford, 1991).

Not All Attitudes Are The Same

Attitudes are also stronger when the ABCs of affect, behaviour, and cognition all align. As an example, many people’s attitude toward their own nation is universally positive. They have strong positive feelings about their country, many positive thoughts about it, and tend to engage in behaviours that support it. The same extends to products that are made in our home countries: consumers tend to have a more positive attitude towards items that are “made local” and as a result may be more likely to purchase them over others.

Other attitudes are less strong because the affective, cognitive, and behavioural components are each somewhat different (Thompson, Zanna & Griffin, 1995). Your cognitions toward physical exercise may be positive — you believe that regular physical activity is good for your health. On the other hand, your affect may be negative — you may resist exercising because you prefer to engage in tasks that provide more immediate rewards. Consequently, you may not exercise as often as you believe you ought to. These inconsistencies among the components of your attitude make it less strong than it would be if all the components lined up together.

Consider making a list of where your consumer-based attitude alignment is strong (affect, behaviour, and cognition all align) and where your attitude may be inconsistent among the ABC’s (e.g. affect may be low but cognition is strong).

The Principle of Attitude Consistency

The Principle of attitude consistency (that for any given attitude object, the ABCs of affect, behaviour, and cognition are normally in line with each other) thus predicts that our attitudes (for instance, as measured via a self-report measure) are likely to guide behaviour. Supporting this idea, meta-analyses have found that there is a significant and substantial positive correlation among the different components of attitudes, and that attitudes expressed on self-report measures do predict behaviour (Glasman & Albarracín, 2006).

Looking at this through the consumer behaviour lens, we can use this principle to identify that if a consumer feels strongly about sustainability in the production, consumption, and disposal of consumer products, that they will act accordingly: they will buy sustainably produced products then consume (and dispose of) them in a way that minimizes their negative impact to land, water, and air.

Normative Influences

Norms can have a powerful influence on consumer attitudes & behaviour. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them. Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviours worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and they are the most strictly enforced. But even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees and are reflected in cultural values.

For example, money is highly valued in Canada, so monetary crimes are punished. It’s against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install anti-theft devices to protect homes and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is speeding when driving. While it’s against the law to speed, driving above the speed limit or with the “flow” of traffic is common practice. And though there are laws to speeding, there are a range of enforcement in formal norms.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms — casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to — is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly — “Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin” — while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm.

Cialdini & Trost (1998) defined social norms as accepted group rules and standards that guide our behavior without the force of law. We can also think of norms as representing what we ought to do or the correct thing to do. They are the accepted way of thinking, feeling and behaving that the group supports. I think for most of us social norms become the most obvious when someone violates them. Have you ever been somewhere and thought, “I can’t believe that person is doing that! Don’t they know that isn’t appropriate.”? There are many rules for appropriate behavior in public spaces. Often the groups we belong to and that we value, socialize us early on what is expected and acceptable ways of thinking and behaving. It is typically only through violation of norms that we are aware of their existence.

Subjective norms
refer to the degree of social pressure an individual feels regarding the performance or non-performance of a specific behaviour (Ajzen, 1988). Subjective norms are influenced by ones’ perception of the beliefs based on parents, friends, partners, acquaintances and colleagues. This plays a significant factor in how people are influenced in the way they perceive behavior and views.

Descriptive norms are defined as, “the perception of what most people do in a given situation” (Burger, 2021). Most of us, most of the time, are motivated to do the right thing. If society deems that we put litter in a proper container, speak softly in libraries, and tip our waiter, then that’s what most of us will do. But sometimes it’s not clear what society expects of us. In these situations, we often rely on descriptive norms (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990).

Researchers have demonstrated the power of descriptive norms in a number of areas. Homeowners reduced the amount of energy they used when they learned that they were consuming more energy than their neighbours (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007). Undergraduates selected the healthy food option when led to believe that other students had made this choice (Burger et al., 2010). Hotel guests were more likely to reuse their towels when a hanger in the bathroom told them that this is what most guests did (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). And more people began using the stairs instead of the elevator when informed that the vast majority of people took the stairs to go up one or two floors (Burger & Shelton, 2011).

How Descriptive Norms Mislead Us

It’s not always easy to obtain good descriptive norm information, which means we sometimes rely on a flawed notion of the norm when deciding how we should behave. A good example of how misperceived norms can lead to problems is found in research on binge drinking among college students. Excessive drinking is a serious problem on many campuses (Mita, 2009). There are many reasons why students binge drink, but one of the most important is their perception of the descriptive norm. How much students drink is highly correlated with how much they believe the average student drinks (Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Larimer, 2007).

Unfortunately, students aren’t always very good at making this assessment. They notice the boisterous heavy drinker at the party but fail to consider all the students not attending the party. As a result, students typically overestimate the descriptive norm for college student drinking (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Perkins, Haines, & Rice, 2005). Most students believe they consume significantly less alcohol than the norm, a miscalculation that creates a dangerous push toward more and more excessive alcohol consumption. On the positive side, providing students with accurate information about drinking norms has been found to reduce overindulgent drinking (Burger, LaSalvia, Hendricks, Mehdipour, & Neudeck, 2011; Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Walter, 2009).

The Theory of Planned Behaviour

Our attitudes are not the only factor that influence our decision to act. The theory of planned behaviour, developed by Martin Fishbein and Izek Ajzen (Ajzen, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), outlines three key variables that affect the attitude-behaviour relationship:

  1. the attitude toward the behaviour (the stronger the better)
  2. subjective norms (the support of those we value)
  3. perceived behavioural control (the extent to which we believe we can actually perform the behaviour).

These three factors jointly predict our intention to perform the behaviour, which in turn predicts our actual behaviour.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour In Action

The Theory of Planned Behaviour helps predict what intentions will turn into actions, and the degree of control a person has over what intentions turn into actions (Chan & Bishop; Greaves et al.).

Imagine for a moment that your friend Sharina is trying to decide whether to recycle her used laptop batteries or just throw them away.

(a) We know that her attitude toward recycling is positive — she thinks she should do it — but we also know that recycling takes work. It’s much easier to just throw the batteries away.

(b) If Sharina feels strongly about the importance of recycling, and if her family and friends (external influences in the form of subjective norms) are also in favour of recycling, this will factor into her behavioural outcome.

(c) And if Sharina has easy access to a battery recycling facility, then she will develop a strong intention to perform the behaviour and likely follow through on it.

Let’s imagine another example using this model to show how it can predict attitude and outcome:

Jillian is a personal fitness trainer and is now eligible to get a vaccine for Covid-19 so she can protect herself and stop the spread to her loved ones and community.

(a) Jillian gets a flu shot every year and is an advocate for vaccinations and immunization. Throughout flu season and the Coronavirus pandemic, Jillian always wore a mask in public.

(b) Jillian’s doctor, friends, family, and co-workers at the gym are equally as attentive to their health and the safety of others and will be getting vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. Jillian’s community and the majority of people in her society all believe in science-based medicine.

(c) It’s easy to set up the vaccinate appointment: Jillian goes online, makes the reservation, then attends the appointment at the pharmacy just down the street from her. Simple.

Jillian’s attitude (a), the subjective norm (b), and the perceived behavioural control (c) all support her getting the Covid-19 vaccine much more likely.

Self-Determination & Intrinsic Motivation in Attitudes

The self-determination theory theory describes motivated behaviour as part of a continuum that ranges from autonomous to controlled actions (Huffman, 2014). Unlike the theory of planned behaviour that examines subjective norms (external influences) as a factor to predict behaviour, the self-determination theory focuses on motivation and personality (internal cues) as predictors to attitude and behaviour.

The theory proposed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000) states that understanding motivation requires taking into account three basic human needs:

  • autonomy—the need to feel free of external constraints on behavior
  • competence—the need to feel capable or skilled
  • relatedness—the need to feel connected or involved with others

Another intrinsic motivator is the warm-glow effect, which consists of the personal satisfaction and altruistic motives that benefit the well-being of others (Abbott et al.).  Individuals “feel good” for partaking in pro-environmental behaviours and continue to repeat the activities regardless of extrinsic rewards (Abbott et al.). While the warm-glow effect leaves us feeling personally rewarded for “doing good,” there remains much debate about whether each one of our acts of goodness has a positive and long-lasting impact.

The Four Functional Theories of Attitude

Functional theorists Katz (2008) and Smith, Bruner, & White (1956) addressed the issue of not knowing which base (affective, cognition or behaviour) was most important by looking at how the person’s attitude serves them psychologically. They came up with four different functions that an attitude might serve:

  1. One of the most beneficial things an attitude can do for us is to make our lives more efficient. We do not have to evaluate and process each thing we come into contact with to know if it is good (safe) or bad (threatening) (Petty, 1995). This is called the knowledge function and allows us to understand and make sense of the world. My attitude towards insects is somewhat negative. I tend to have large reactions to bites from them and although most do not bite, my immediate reaction is to avoid them if at all possible. In this way my attitude keeps me from having to evaluate every type of insect I come into contact with. Saving time and allowing me to think of other things in life (Bargh, et al.,1992). This example might have prompted you to think that this generalization could lead to discrimination and you would be correct. In an attempt to be more efficient, I am not stopping and processing every insect I come into contact with and some insects are good (safe). We will discuss how this helps explain prejudice and discrimination in a later module.
  2. Our attitudes can serve an ego-defensive function which is to help us cover up things that we do not like about ourselves or help us to feel better about ourselves. You might think cheerleaders are stupid or superficial to protect yourself from feeling badly that you aren’t a cheerleader. Here you defended against a threatening truth – you aren’t a cheerleader which you want to be and boosted your self-image by believing that you are better than them – you are smart and complex.
  3. We can categorize some of our attitudes as serving as tools that lead us to greater rewards or help us to avoid punishments. So, individuals might have developed an attitude that having sex with many partners is bad. This has both a knowledge function and a utilitarian function by helping people avoid the societal punishment of being called promiscuous and then seeking the reward of being the kind of person that someone would take home and introduce to their parents.
  4. The final function centers around the idea that some of our attitudes help us express who we are to other people, value-expressive function. We see this a lot on social media. If you were to examine someone’s Facebook or Instagram page you would see that their posts are full of their attitudes about life and they intentionally post certain things so that people will know who they are as a person. You might post a lot of political things and people might see you as a politically engaged person, you might post a lot about the environment and people see that you are passionate about this topic. This is who you are.

Cognitive Dissonance

Social psychologists have documented that feeling good about ourselves and maintaining positive self-esteem is a powerful motivator of human behaviour (Tavris & Aronson, 2008). Often, our behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs are affected when we experience a threat to our self-esteem or positive self-image. Psychologist Leon Festinger (1957) defined cognitive dissonance as psychological discomfort arising from holding two or more inconsistent attitudes, behaviours, or cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, or opinions). Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance states that when we experience a conflict in our behaviours, attitudes, or beliefs that runs counter to our positive self-perceptions, we experience psychological discomfort (dissonance). For example, if you believe smoking is bad for your health but you continue to smoke, you experience conflict between your belief and behaviour.

When we experience cognitive dissonance, we are motivated to decrease it because it is psychologically, physically, and mentally uncomfortable. We can reduce cognitive dissonance by bringing our cognitions, attitudes, and behaviours in line — that is, making them harmonious.

This sense of harmony can be achieved in different ways, such as:

  • Changing our discrepant behaviour (e.g., stop smoking);
  • Changing our cognitions through rationalization or denial (e.g., telling ourselves that health risks can be reduced by smoking filtered cigarettes);
  • Adding a new cognition (e.g., “Smoking suppresses my appetite so I don’t become overweight, which is good for my health”).

Multi-Attribute Attitude Model

Marketers desire the ability to better understand consumers’ attitudes towards their products and services. However, attitudes are complex and a consumer may have a range of attitudes (favourable and unfavourable) towards a single product or service—not just one. In addition to the various qualities held by a product or service, consumers are also faced with the added complexity of seeking approval, whether that comes from friends, family, or society. Attitude models are designed to help identify the different factors that would influence a consumer’s evaluation of attitude objects.

Due to the complexity surrounding attitudes, researchers use multi-attribute models to explain them. Simply put, multi-attribute models say that we form attitudes about a product based on several attributes of that product, our beliefs about those attributes, and the relative importance we assign to those attributes.

The decision to purchase a car like an SUV offers a good illustration of how a multi-attribute model affects purchase behaviour. On the one hand, the styling and stance of a particular model might evoke feelings of power, confidence, and ruggedness. The vehicle’s high ground clearance and roomy back might be great for the consumer’s intended camping trips. On the other hand, the brand could make the consumer ill at ease — perhaps a friend had a bad experience with that car maker. And the more rational side of a consumer might balk at the high cost and poor gas mileage. Yet the vehicle looks great, so the consumer isn’t sure. And, regardless of their personal feelings about the vehicle, the consumer may also factor in social pressure: will their friends criticize them as a wasteful gas-guzzler if they buy an SUV instead of a compact hybrid? Will they buy or won’t they? The decision depends on how the buyer combines and weights these positive and negative attitude components.

Graphic depicting the Multi-Attribute Model using a numerical scoring system for 3 different types of SUV's.
The Multi-Attribute Model can be used to calculate an Attitude Score by evaluating the importance of key attributes featured across different products or brands.

A student might have a range of attitudes towards different brands of laptop computers. There are various features each brand is known for (speed, weight, memory) but in addition to the functional attributes, a student may also want to evaluate the brand appeal for each one. The following table provides students with a re-usable template to build their own multi-attribute model for any range of brands, products, or services they might want to evaluate using this model.

Multi-attribute model for laptop computers

The multi-attribute model used to evaluate laptop computers showing Apple’s MacBook as the clear favourite
Attribute Importance MacBook Windows Surface Acer
Low Price 5 1 2 3
Processing Memory (RAM) 4 3 2 3
Processing speed 3 2 3 4
Brand appeal 5 5 2 1
Light weight 2 4 5 1
56 47 46

Media Attributions

  • The graphic of “The ABC Model of Attitudes” by Niosi, A. (2021) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.
  • The graphic of the “Multi-Attribute Model” by Niosi, A. (2021) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

Text Attributions


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